Wednesday, Dec 24, 2003
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By Harish Khare
CONSIDER THREE different developments during the last week. The Prime Minister uses the Rajya Sabha forum to lament the political parties' increasing dependence on donations from the capitalists. This was perhaps the first time in recent years that a senior political leader had spoken in a disapproving tone of the possibly deleterious effects of too close a proximity to "capitalists". Second, the Congress managers were more eager than the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) establishment to get the new anti-defection law in place as soon as possible. The Congress calculation was that once the law came into force, it would be easier for them to handle the dissidents and their factionalism in Punjab and Kerala, to begin with. And, third, the Samata Party and the Janata Dal leaders treated themselves to a liberal dose of classic bossism and announced a former merger, making a token gesture of "consultation" with the "workers."
All the three developments relate to a week when the "reformers" are claiming credit for having exorcised the political system of the major scourge of mass defections. The anti-defection amendment has put an end to "defections" by the simple device of outlawing "splits" in the legislative wings of political parties; that is, even if one-third of MPs/MLAs were inclined to part company with the leadership of the week, the dissenters would not be permitted to set up separate shop. Barring a handful of habitual malcontents who raised the spectre of "bossism" rampant, the established leaders of established political parties said "amen" when the Law Minister argued: "If you have the courage of your convictions, resign (as legislator) and seek re-election." Politically very correct. And also very convenient to party managers and bosses.
Liberal opinion ought to be wary of any legal reform that outlaws dissent per se. Concern with "defection" has been a three-decade-long preoccupation with all right-thinking people. At the same time, a section of the political class has always insisted that as a matter of principle a dissenter should be able to have his or her say; after all, it is the most cherished and established liberal position that the minority should not be silenced into submission and conformism as dictated by the majority. The dilemma had manifested itself most acutely among political parties, especially in their legislative wings, over how to balance the need for discipline and order against the desirability of permitting dissent. The Tenth Schedule was deemed to be the answer to the corruption of political process, in particular the role of money in buying the loyalties of the individual legislators, while permitting group dissension. However, corrupt politicians will invariably find a way around any legal encumbrances, and they did find a way to beat the Tenth Schedule.
The Tenth Schedule was hailed as a "reform" against the menace of defection, just as the latest anti-defection amendment is being applauded as having cleansed the polity of dirty money and its dirtier influence. The Rajiv Gandhi crowd's stratagem was to make dissension and defection a legally untenable proposition. A Prime Minister who had over 400 Lok Sabha members was serenaded as a "reformer" but his managers' calculation was that no detractor would be able to muster over 100 Lok Sabha votes to walk out of the party. A law was deemed to be a substitute for political wisdom and intellectual maturity. Once assured of this legislative immunity, Rajiv Gandhi embarked on a path of arrogance towards senior leaders within the Congress as also towards the political rivals outside the party. Yet the Tenth Schedule did not prevent the emergence of the most formidable (and by far the most successful) dissent faced by any Congress Prime Minister: the challenge from Vishwanath Pratap Singh. Stranded in the Tenth Scheduled-induced governmental stability, the Rajiv Gandhi establishment chose to overlook the first principle of realpolitik: the problem of political management persuasion, compromise and reconciliation cannot be legislated.
Once again we seem to have put out collective faith in legal devices to sort out essentially political problems. The Tenth Schedule was shredded into nothingness only because a couple of presiding officers colluded with the ruling party's political bosses to define the "split" as per the Prime Minister or the Chief Minister's convenience. Now the new amendment has simply outlawed "split". One problem of "mass" defections of the type that the BJP encouraged in Uttar Pradesh to cobble together a majority for Kalyan Singh in 1997 has presumably been taken care of. But it would be premature to pat ourselves on the back. A new premium in fact has been put on indiscipline. If a faction cannot leave without inviting loss of legislative membership, it is then free to make a nuisance of itself. For example, Rajinder Kaur Bhattal in Punjab can behave like a disciplined MLA inside the Assembly and yet reduce the Chief Minster to a figure of ridicule by her open dissent and disagreement. Just recall that even when Arjun Singh had floated a rival political party, the Indian National Congress (Tiwari), he legally continued to be member of the Congress in the Lok Sabha. Arjun Singh's rebellion was a major detraction from the Narasimha Rao Government's political legitimacy; a weakened Prime Minister simply invited encroachment from others like the Supreme Court and T.N. Seshan's Election Commission.
It would be sobering to remember that the new anti-defection law has made easier the replication of the Arjun Singh option. Nor does it enhance the legitimacy of representative government. The reason is simple. The new law does not address the core of the problem: entrenched traditions and practices of bossism in each and every political party, national or regional. Political parties in India are the ugly face of public life because they have become the pocket boroughs of this or that leader. In the Congress, for instance, the final decisions are taken when Sonia Gandhi eats alone with her daughter. In the BJP it is the foursome Atal Bihari Vajpayee, L.K. Advani, Jaswant Singh and Venkaiah Naidu which calls the shots, and then these decisions are endorsed or vetoed by the faceless bosses at the RSS headquarters. In the Telugu Desam, the decisions are finalised when Chandrababu Naidu talks to his laptop; in the Rashtriya Janata Dal, it is Laloo Prasad Yadav; in the Samajwadi Party it is one and a half leader who decides when to run with the ball. Only the Left parties retain a semblance of collective decision-making. True, all political parties go through the motion of internal elections and consultation; but the farce fools no one.
Political bosses who are strutting as reformers should be forced to carry forward the process to its next logical step: legally mandated institutionalisation and democratisation of political parties. When Arun Jaitley moved the anti-defection amendment, he cited the authority of the recommendations of the Law Commission of India's 170th report on "reform of electoral laws." But the honourable Law Minister came nowhere near invoking the guiding principle outlined in that report: "A political party which does not respect democratic principles in its internal working cannot be expected to respect those principles in the governance of the country. It cannot be dictatorship internally and democratic in its functioning outside."
It is about time that civil society and democratic opinion insisted that the political parties become open, democratic and accountable in their functioning. The Congress as the oldest party in the country is most guilty on this count; it has learnt well the seemingly impossible art of being an elaborately "constitutional" organisation but operating it as the most lawless political party; the only law is the fancy of the day of the high command of the day. Political parties have to be brought within the ambit of responsive institutional existence and behaviour. If the political parties demand and get concessions, and privileges (which are conceded only at the tax payer's expense), then these have to subject themselves to the principle of accountability and transparency. The Election Commission of India will have to be empowered to supervise and monitor the internal elections at every stage, beginning with the registration/enrolment of the so-called due paying members. The bosses can no longer be allowed to rig the "internal elections" to suit their advantage. Second, the Comptroller and Auditor-General should be mandated to audit and scrutinise the parties' funds and expenses. These two reforms need to be immediately put in place if the bosses are to be put in their places. Only then we can claim to have begun the process of political reforms.
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